Arab Intellectuals and the Bush Administration's Campaign for Democracy: The Case of the Greater Middle East Initiative

Article excerpt

This article considers how Arab intellectuals represent the United States and American foreign policy in their editorial contributions to Arabic newspapers. As a case study, it examines Arab intellectuals' reactions to the George W. Bush Administration's campaign to effect democratic change in the Middle East, as articulated in the Administration's 2004 Greater Middle East Initiative (hereafter GMEI or Initiative). I argue that the predominantly hostile reactions to the GMEI stemmed mainly from a closed and negative image of the United States permeating Arab intellectual circles. This negative image is the product of the history of American policy towards the region and, equally important, of the beliefs, values, and formative experiences of Arab intellectuals. The article concludes by addressing ways to ameliorate this image.

As the Bush presidency draws to a close, and is faced with an assertive Congress that is dominated by Democrats, the Administration's Middle East policy lies in disarray. While the Administration had a few triumphant moments - as with its military victories over the Taliban government and the regime of Saddam Husayn - its overall record in the Middle East has been one of failure. The Administration's failure in the Middle East has dwarfed its failures in other parts of the world and on the domestic front. The Middle East is today less stable, less friendly to the United States, and not a bit more democratic; and American troops and taxpayers are paying dearly for this. At the root of this failure is the great incongruity between how Administration officials perceived American policy towards the region, and how this policy was interpreted and presented to the broader public by Arab intellectuals and Arab governments. A witness to this disconnect is Arab intellectuals' reactions to the GMEI, which is the subject of this article.

The London-based newspaper Al-Hayat's publication of the leaked text of the GMEI on February 13, 2004 triggered an avalanche of opinion pieces and editorials in the Arab press that criticized the Initiative, casting doubts over the intentions of the Bush Administration that sponsored it. Faced with hostile reactions from its Arab allies and lukewarm European support, the Bush Administration first scaled down and then quietly withdrew the Initiative. But between me spring and fall of 2004 - when the GMEI was a hot topic - Arab intellectuals1 and Arab governments found common cause in denouncing it. The intensity of criticisms leveled against the GMEI, and the fact that they emanated largely from countries considered friendly to the United States (primarily Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, and Egypt2), revealed the extent of animosity towards the United States in Arab intellectual circles (and among the Arab and Muslim publics at large), especially in the months following the US military invasion and occupation of Iraq.3

This article contends that the hostility towards the GMEI is the product of a negative and closed image of the United States and its Middle East policy tiiat permeates Arab intellectual circles. Based on a qualitative content analysis of dozens of editorials and opinion pieces written by Arab opinion shapers (university professors, heads of research centers, renowned journalists, and politicians) on the subject of the GMEI, the article identifies and discusses four broad themes that dominate the negative and closed image of the United States. First, the United States is in no position to "lecture" the world on democracy, given the many failures of its domestic system and its aggressive international conduct. Second, US Middle East policy is guided by interests (Israel's security, access to inexpensive oil, and fighting international terrorism) rather than principles or ideals (promotion of democracy, rule of law, and human rights). Third, US rhetoric about democracy conceals sinister plans for exerting hegemony over the Arab and Islamic worlds in order to serve US (and Israeli) interests. …


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